- The Washington Times - Friday, September 29, 2000

Seven years ago, had I encountered the woman I am today, I would have pitied her: long sleeves and an ankle-length skirt in the middle of summer; no driving, writing, talking on the phone or cooking from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday; recently married to a man she'd never touched, with not so much as a peck on the cheek, until after the wedding.
I'd have cringed and dismissed this woman as a repressed religious nut. Now my pity or at least a patient smile is for that self-certain Southern California girl I was at 25.
I grew up in Tucson, Ariz., the older of two daughters, in a typically upper-middle-class, well-educated liberal Jewish family. My dad is a physician, my mother active in the local Jewish community. My religious and ethnic identification consisted of fund-raising for Jewish causes, Israeli dancing and Sunday brunches of bagels and lox.
As a gawky 13-year-old, I had a bat mitzvah, along with the obligatory party at a posh country club. At 16, I joined the group American Atheists.
I continued my liberal pursuits in college in Philadelphia, and after graduation I drove my Honda with its "I'm Pro-Choice and I Vote!" bumper sticker to California. I took advantage of all Los Angeles had to offer; I ate sushi and gelati, played beach volleyball, studied kabala and once went to a "Nam-myoho-renge-kyo" chanting session.
I was living in a Beverly Hills basement with a gay friend at the time, working for the National Organization for Women, helping organize pro-choice rallies. I also did stints as aerobics instructor, waitress, cashier and [Scholastic Assessment Test] tutor. Finally, I entered the University of Southern California as a graduate student in journalism.
In the next few years, I wrote for the Los Angeles Times about miniskirts, paisley and the plight of L.A.'s lovelorn. Then I worked for Teen magazine, penning endless variations of "how to get/dump your guy" stories and answering hapless teen-age girls' letters in the magazine's "Dear Juli" column. I found the job mind-numbing and depressing. How many ways, I wondered, could I teach a girl to flirt?
There I was 25 years old, finally having achieved what should "do it": a promising career, friends, things. Yet I felt as though something was profoundly lacking as if I were a Ferrari engine stuffed into a VW Bug.
Though I was at times excited, even ecstatic, I rarely remember being content or truly joyful. Though I believed in spirituality, religion was the "opiate of the masses," a crutch for emotional and intellectual weaklings and conservative Republicans. I favored Tarot card and palm readers and a particular psychic who told me I was Napoleon in a past life.
Then one night, a friend and I dropped in on an Orthodox Jewish gathering near my apartment not so much to find enlightenment as to meet guys. I don't recall what, exactly, but something the rabbi said resonated. I decided to take a class. I certainly had no intention of becoming ick! religious. I just wanted to learn more about Judaism's philosophy and mysticism.
As for those archaic laws? How dare anyone tell me I'm restricted from certain activities because I'm a woman or that I have to dress a certain way to protect my dignity.
Yet as much as I fought and rebelled, I was drawn to the Orthodox world. I recognized something profound there the values, the consciousness, the sensitivity to others. I examined my worldview and myself in a different way.
I began to see that in a society in which individuality, self-determination and freedom of choice are the highest values, I had, in fact, been limited by pressures I didn't even recognize. I had been conforming to what is considered "normal," its definition changing every few years.
Now, for the first time, I understood what I had always felt, that I had an essence, a soul. I glimpsed a higher meaning to life and the infinitely deep layers of existence leading to the Ultimate Existence: insight into which a 25-year-old even one with a personal trainer and her own advice column might not be privy.
To the shock of my family, which was half-sure I'd been sucked in by a cult, I quit my job, sublet my beautiful Beverly Hills apartment and traveled to Israel to continue my studies.
I spent many months grappling with the "female" question. I discovered men and women are significantly, dramatically different, emotionally and physically (and now, I realize, spiritually). Judaism addresses these differences. I looked really looked at the religious women around me. I had never met stronger, more emotionally and spiritually refined, capable, loving, non-neurotic women. Or more sensitive, respectful, devoted men. More happy, psychically intact, cared-for children. I wanted that.
Becoming observant does not make a weak person strong. It is not a quick fix for a lifetime of emotional damage. But the Torah's guidelines provide the boundaries and tools for inner healing and transformation. Now, being "religious" frames everything I do, say and strive for. I knew that the man I would marry must share the same priorities and values.
My husband, a successful businessman, and I met in New York through a mutual teacher who knew us well. I'd spent plenty of time engaged in the rites of Los Angeles-style dating. This was a whole different ritual.
In venturing into this shiduch which, loosely translated, means "date" we had agreed to an express purpose. We were to decide if we were a match, and with far less dilly-dallying than in most modern court-ships.
Aaron and I spent hours together eating Chinese food, playing miniature golf and pinball, ice-skating and boating in Central Park. I came to respect his integrity, his strength and his constant striving to do and be better. (And he's cute!) Four months after we met, we began a 10-week engagement. (My mother, who had spent a year planning my sister's nuptials, was aghast.)
We never touched, but got to know each other, unclouded by the bond of physical intimacy, which so often super-glues the wrong people together.
People look at Orthodox women as repressed. But I often think about a truer definition of repression. When I see women in skimpy clothing, intimately involved with men they barely know, I think: "Wake up, girlfriend! You think men are seeing your soul? Thinking about your needs? About who you are? Your body has become your self." The real feminine mystique consists of a woman's private side, the richness of her inner world.
Once, I aspired to make it as a writer, and perhaps get married and have a kid or two along the way. Today, although I still work as a free-lance writer, it is not my identity. I live in a religious community outside Manhattan, full of the type of people I used to look at with pity, even contempt.
My goal is to become like these women: sensitive, strong, fantastic wives and mothers not, as I once thought, because they had been subjugated for centuries and didn't know better or because they were lacking self-esteem, but because they recognize that the most important thing a person can do is to develop character by giving, building and supporting another.
A Jewish wedding revolves around making the bride and groom happy. After the ceremony, but before the dancing what exuberant, unabashed dancing! Aaron and I went to a separate room to spend a few private moments. There, he held my hand for the first time. That small gesture had a richness and intimacy I could never have imagined.

Editor's note: Mrs. Kahn's first child is due in December. A longer version of this essay first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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